Quick Take:

How will Santa Cruz County better strategize around homelessness solutions? The new “H4HP” policy board, made up of key leaders and experts from around the area, is intended to up the ante of what a policymaking board can achieve on the one of the most pressing issues of our time.

If there’s one word to summarize the universal criticisms of Santa Cruz County’s homelessness response in recent years, it would be “siloed.”

Robert Ratner — director of the county’s Housing for Health division since November 2020, and someone who has used that word often since his arrival — is leading a makeover intended to break that structure. It involves both a reorganization of existing resources and a concerted effort to bring new, important voices to the policymaking table.

“We’re going to get some healthy, new perspectives … we’re going to start seeing some breaking down of those silos,” he said.

Organizationally, the acronym to learn is (H4HP), for Housing for Health Partnership. In bureaucratic terms, that’s a rebranding of the Homeless Action Partnership (HAP).

But what does that all mean practically?

In its efforts to push government and nonprofits to work better together, it brings more experience into what is intended to be a more coordinated response to the issues.

Robert Ratner
Robert Ratner, the county director of Housing for Health, said of the rebrand: “We’re going to get some healthy, new perspectives…we’re going to start seeing some breaking down of those silos.” Credit: Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz

When complete, H4HP will have 15 members, led by Ratner. Of that group, nine members represent the county or city governments, as shown below. Three members will be “working group” representatives, with at least one member with “lived experience of homelessness.” Three others represent nonprofit organizations involved in the wider work.

Ratner led the process of selecting the group’s members, with 12 appointees at this point, and is still recruiting for the three remaining seats on the operational committee, with at least one member having lived experience of homelessness. The policy board is split up by number of seats per municipality:

  • 2 representatives for City of Santa Cruz
  • 2 representatives for City of Watsonville
  • 1 representative for City of Scotts Valley/City of Capitola (alternating appointments)
  • 4 representatives for Santa Cruz County
  • 1 representative for the health sector
  • 1 representative for the workforce/business/foundation sector
  • 1 representative for the education sector

The policy board will meet at least six times per year, with the first public meeting scheduled for April 20; the H4HP team will host a public session Wednesday to describe its forthcoming goals.

Three of H4HP’s new members each personify the changes the new approach seeks.

Stephanie Sonnenshine, CEO for the Central California Alliance for Health

Sonnenshine brings unique perspectives on homelessness to the policy board, especially addressing the issues surrounding Medi-Cal managed care, said Ratner. She became CEO five years ago, after joining the alliance in 2009.

Sonnenshine’s organization offers enhanced case-management services to seven “populations of focus,” the first including persons experiencing homelessness. By joining H4HP, she wants to connect with other community support service providers to round out services.

“This is a really good opportunity for us to support the efforts to bring these partners together, and I’m really impressed with the coordination thus far,” she said.

Tiffany Cantrell-Warren, assistant director of the county’s Health Services Agency

She began her current role in August 2021 — but her roots with Santa Cruz’s homeless population stem back to her youth in Soquel.

“I see some of the same folks who were homeless 20 years ago when I was in high school,” she said. “It’s heartening that they were still alive, but it’s disheartening that they’re still homeless. … These are folks that I grew up with.”

After working with the Long Beach Health and Human Services Department for nearly nine years, Cantrell-Warren believes Santa Cruzans should embrace both more affordable and permanent supportive housing.

Mariah Lyons, assistant dean of students for Student Support Programs at UC Santa Cruz

Lyons, a social worker, joins the reorganized H4HP to speak for students. Officials estimate that at least 9% of the UCSC student community currently experiences homelessness.

“Solving this issue is extremely complex and I think it has a better chance of success by involving numerous community partners,” she said. “The university is part of this community and I am grateful Robert reached out to collaborate.”

Says Ratner of the new group, “The prior structure was a smaller group of people — it didn’t include people who maybe weren’t directly operating programs, but are compassionate or touch the issue of homelessness in some way.”

Grace comes to Lookout from just over the hill, originally from Sunnyvale but with a variety of journalism experience from across the country.After doing her undergrad at Seattle University, Grace earned...